(An excerpt from Tanker Jimmie Leach.}
From a distance, across the tidal water channeling through the golden marsh grass, on the straight causeway set on the embankment just clear of the high tide, an old, white station wagon crawls along, taking forever to clear each evenly spaced palmetto tree. At the end of the causeway where the road reaches the island at a margin of insubstantial brush, the vehicle pulls off to the side. Close in now. A man slowly opens his door. He rolls his legs out of the car and pulls himself to standing. He is old and bent but his fine, white hair is newly trimmed. In his right hand he holds a plastic ladle. He shuffles to the back of the car, bracing himself with his left hand along the roofline. He opens the rear window and scoops out dog food from a bag and moves with it to an empty dish he has left in this spot for some months now, just under the sign “2009 - Four Deer Hit this Year”.
A new Marine hurries over to him from the guard station. We see her automatic weapon pointed off to the side. “Sir?” she says. “Can I help you?” Her sergeant comes up beside her. “Sergeant Bennett, here, Sir. What are you doing?” The old man tilts his head and looks up at the Marines full on. He smiles a lopsided smile and says, “Jimmie Leach, Sergeant. Col. Leach. Got to feed the raccoons, you know.” He points to the sign. “And the deer. Have you seen any deer today? How long have you two Marines been stationed here at Parris Island? Where are you from?”
Later that afternoon he returns home and sits at his computer. He has many emails but opens one from a familiar name:
“Jimmie, understand you had a bout with illness recently but are home now. So
very glad to hear that and wanted to wish you continued recovery at home.
Just a couple of things. Recently I had opportunity to meet with Ric Shinseki just before he was confirmed as Pres. Obama’s VA Secretary. We both recounted how you were the sole champion to allow many of us in Armor to remain on active duty and how much all of us were grateful you did that. Now if course many can continue. You were our champion in those Vietnam days. Forever thanks.
Second, this week in my Battle Command class we are talking about the relief of Bastogne by all of you in 37th Tank in 1944. I have them read a passage from Bob Sorley's book, Thunderbolt. Since you were there, any thoughts you want me to pass on to my 16 Cadets?
All the very best to you and Marion.
Fred Franks (Gen. US Army, Ret.)
This is a soldier’s story told late in life; an armored warrior’s exploration of more than seventy years of fearless, loyal service, always standing in readiness for the unknown, prepared to do the next right thing.
The Gods have removed from us so many of the warriors who moved from the 1930’s and its depression and despair into the preparation for war and through the awful years of Pearl Harbor and Midway and North Africa and Sicily and Omaha Beach and Iwo and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These straight-leg warriors watched their comrades, just an arms length away, drop or fragment or simply disappear. Tankers waited inside their closeted realm and knew if they heard the ordnance bounce away they were still safe. The airmen saw their squadrons fall from the sky, perhaps still alive but nearing a moment of death as predictable in time and place as has ever been ordained. Sailors bade good luck to shiploads of mates who then simply disappeared. All of these men and a few women and all of the men and women of our enemies may well be meeting still in that place of heroes that Gen. George S. Patton believed was the jumping off place for reincarnation to another, more powerful warrior.
But of those men still with us, no one speaks with the clarity and vision and mission of service that marks the life and story of Col. James H. Leach. His may be the last detailed memory of the Greatest Generation.
(The placid, modest, friendly exterior of this Officer disguises the fighting heart of a lion and the tenaciousness of a bulldog, all seasoned with an engaging personality. - Lt. Colonel Creighton W. Abrams, Dec. 31, 1944)
In this chronicle Belgians and Frenchmen and Luxembourgs, gaunt and hungry, surround the soldier’s Sherman tank as his company of George Patton’s advancing American 4th Army liberates the villages of Europe. A few years later, Korean farmers walk to protected compounds, safe from nighttime communist marauders as our soldier, a liaison officer now for his Army and dressed in local attire, squats with his Korean aide against a wall at the edge of the town and observe the peaceful square go about this evening business. Our Captain is unmindful of powerful forces that will soon stand Korean against Korean in island slaughter that will be called genocide and blamed on his modest liaison mission. Two decades pass and Vietnamese women and children wave little national flags of gratitude and freedom and push out along newly paved roads to go to market and escort their children to school under the protection of his 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment’s flying gun ships.
German projectiles penetrate his body. Shrapnel in his calf in July, 1944; a broken nose and a lacerated left eye an hour apart in November then a crease across the buttocks from an artillery fragment. Later he stands, exposed, in the turret of his surging Sherman tank, Blockbuster 3, scratching across the ice on Christmas Eve in 1944. His troops struggle to capture the tiny French village of Bigonville. He is part of a dramatically important action, General George S. Patton’s winter forced march 120 miles north to relieve the encircled airborne and armored infantry trapped at the Belgian village of Bastogne and more importantly to cut off the westward surge of German armor moving to Antwerp and the Sea.
Armor is supposed to move fast and he is in the advanced guard of the 4th Armored Division attack as commander of Company B, 37th Tank Battalion under Lt. Colonel Creighton Abrams. But the infantry units accompanying his tanks are hunkered down in the village. The infantry Captain is dead and their Lieutenant refuses to advance. Their leadership has failed them.
Now Captain Leach himself is knocked to the deck of his tank with a wound in his arm. Gunnery Corporal John Yaremchuk, an immigrant US soldier from Ukraine pushes him back up into the turret. Capt. Leach is hit again by rifle fire directed by a sniper in the trees along the road. This time he is hit in the head. The projectile has penetrated his helmet and dropped to the floor of the tank. The commander is on the floor, too, unconscious and bleeding. Cpl. Yaremchuk wafts a capsule of ammonia under his nose. Leach awakens in a few minutes as his crew tends to his bleeding head. Yaremchuk hands him his punctured helmet. He says stand up in the turret, Captain! You belong in command of this tank.
But almost immediately the commander leaps out of his tank. He dismounts and runs into the village. He joins Captain Whitehall. They are the surviving Battalion officers and they stride through the pockets of infantry still holed up in the buildings. They prod the soldiers forward to attack. The troops move out.
This wound earns Captain James H. Leach his fifth and final Purple Heart. His action marshalling the infantry to attack earns Captain Leach the Distinguished Service Cross. The next night, with head, cheek and calf bandaged, Leach leads his tankers overnight 30 miles to the east from where his Battalion will fight north to enter Bastogne on Dec. 26, 1944 and relieve its encircled command.
A quarter century later and again leading daily combat, now Col. Leach lands his helicopter in the middle of the Michelin rubber plantation in a Vietnam firefight to save the life of his Air Squadron Commander, Major Jim Bradin, after his battered helicopter twisted itself into a water-filled crevice already carved deep by artillery blasts.
Thirty seven years later Bradin says to Col. Leach, “When you landed to help me, you were still under fire. You really didn’t need to do that and saving me was a really fearless thing to do.” Col. Leach’s response was automatic. “I saw you get hit.” He turns to me. “Oh, you don’t even think about it. You just do it. No, sir. Here’s your troops in trouble and you just go do something about it. My pilot and I ran up to the helicopter and saw that Bradin and his pilot were out. The two gunners in the back were buried in the ditch the helicopter fell into and they burned to death. And Bradin tends to exaggerate.”
Loyalty is confirmed as Col. Leach journeys in the autumn of life back to the winter of a village in France to celebrate a small and inconclusive 1944 tank engagement that is still etched in the memories of its survivors. He unveils at a small memorial to the seven tankers he lost there 62 years ago. The monument bears each of the names. Col. Leach is joined by another American tanker from that small battle and they invite those few German soldiers who might remember the cold, gray day, the smell of the steamy manure piled high along the main road, the surprise encounters with each other that came as they maneuvered among the high garden walls of the little village.
Col. Leach remembers that Dec.6 at the red-roofed hamlet of Singling during Gen. Patton’s advance toward Germany. Leach dismounted from Blockbuster 3 into ice and mud and walked ahead of the tank. He was firing his automatic weapon at a German Self-Propelled gun turning its aim at him from the little town square. He ordered his tank to shoot its cannon past him and at the Germans but the gunner, Corporal Yaremchuk, did not fire and the German vehicle escaped for the moment. Leach berated Yaremchuk for his refusal to fire. Yaremchuk yelled back that his captain had been in his line of fire and the muzzle blast from the shell would have killed him.
In the spring of 2006, Col. Leach’ wife, Marion, drove him 600 miles to Washington, DC so he could speak the eulogy at John Yaremchuk’s memorial service at the Arlington National Cemetery and tell how his Corporal had dressed him down for spoiling his opportunity to destroy that German SP.
We seem to treasure some stable memories and we have developed such extraordinary tools to explore the rest. The Corgi company in England made zinc die-cast models as collectibles. Their military series includes a 1:50 scale Sherman tank. And they wrote, “This tank belongs to the Company B commander, Captain James Leach, and was named Blockbuster 3D. This was the third Sherman that Leach had operated since 1944.” Colonel Leach’s son Jamie gave him one of these models. Before taking his winter return to Singling, Col. Leach examined the images of the town taken by satellite and displayed on command on Google Earth. The same red roofs strung out for a few hundred meters along the road. Leach mused. “My, the town hasn’t changed a bit. They haven’t built more than four or five houses since the war.”
This is a story, then, of a warrior’s life whose sights and sounds and tastes and smells still reach to touch us. Do not be misled by the absence of the continuing, bloody horror of the battles. It was what it was. Let us choose to get all that carnage revealed, here and now, all at once.
His battlefields were hot and they cold and they were hot again. Inside a tank wet hands stuck to frozen tank armor and the vapor of breath froze on its steel shell. Gun barrels recoiled and crushed fingers and scorched skin and left acrid odors that tore at the nose and teared the eyes and offered up headaches that ground on and on. Inside a fighting tank there was scant light day or night but in the 4th Armored it was tradition to fight with the hatches open and the tank commander exposed waist up in vulnerable full view of the enemy. Jimmie Leach remembers Lt. Rayratt, a tank commander he talked to one night. He was watching him the next morning on the phone. His tank was but a few feet away. Lt. Rayratt started to speak into the phone and his head disappeared. Just a few spurts of blood before his body disappeared into the hull of the tank.
Tank crews loaded and fired and lived blind in a bouncing, shaking sarcophagus that for many would offer their last sentient memory of life on this earth. When they stopped for a moment they scurried off to shit or piss and came back to do the never ending maintenance to guns and gears and drive wheels and turrets and radios. It was important just to keep the exterior ports cleared of mud. By night the painful odor of the dead impregnated cold clothing as the crew attempted a few hours of sleep in a corner of steel, remembering the sight of a soldier accidentally crushed by a Sherman or severed by an incoming Panzer round.
In battle, soldiers ignored pain: cold feet, lice and worms, trench foot, toothaches, burns, chafing clothing, skin rubbed raw carrying guns and ammunition and food and fuel and supplies to maintain the tanks and half-tracks. Their hands were crushed by falling hatch covers, burnt by accidental fuel fires, cut by barbs, bayonets and burrs on the edges of equipment. They focused on the constant physical work and lifted, carried, walked, ran, crawled, loaded, pushed, pulled, climbed, fell, aimed, fired, pissed, shit, ate, farted, cried, laughed, and for some few, shivered uncontrollably in fear, lying out of sight, drawn into the fetal position.
Massed tanks growled and whined and fired cannon that deafened and the sound was majestic when these were your sounds and the sounds crawled up the spine and deep-fried your brain when the sounds were the Panzerfaust and cannon and burp of rapid fire from the enemy upon you. You could see your outgoing ordnance, follow it to its target. Incoming you never saw, you heard them if you were lucky as they flew by. High explosive shells detonated; eardrums transmitted pain. Some shells bounced and rolled and did not explode but came slowly to rest after a mile’s travel and nudged up gently against a grateful and lucky soldier’s leg. Smoke covered the field as phosphorus shells clouded the countryside with acidic vapors.
Capt. Leach’s feet sunk into frigid mud and warm blood; he wondered if the sticky mix of flesh and bone and dirt blown across his body was his own or the remnants of another soldier. Five times in Europe the blood was Jimmie Leach’s blood. Calf, buttocks, nose, eye and finally head. But under Col. Abe you didn’t go home for a flesh wound and his fighting went on. A shell penetrated the hull of a Sherman and Jimmie Leach held the wounded crewman in his arms. His leg was gone at the hip and the few gauze pads Leach applied became a spiritual token of care for the dying man. Another soldier died in his arms. “He died of shock,” Jimmie Leach, says. “He just had a small dark hole near his groin but he was pale and gray and he said to me, ‘I am so sorry, sir.’”
A quarter century later in Vietnam the shell that penetrated his HUEY helicopter went between him and his pilot and blew off the leg of the radio operator. The blood shed in his service in Vietnam was the blood of others, but his Command Sergeant Major Donald Horn writes, “Many times I saw him go off by himself and cry.”
Jimmie Leach, as so many soldiers before and after has taken those memories of terror and packaged them and sent them off into a proper place where they are acknowledged but seldom reopened. He says without further comment that Clint Eastwood’s extraordinary “Flag of Our Fathers” was the best war movie he has ever seen. We can watch that movie and for every image of bloody Capt. Severance leading doomed men and then dying at Iwo Jima we can see Capt. Leach in the hedgerows of France, in Lorraine and across the Ardennes Forest and above the rubber plantations of Vietnam, leading men whose ineluctable fate was death. But perhaps by chance, Jimmie Leach came away from those places among the living.
And so for this work we pack up the horror, here, and walk from it now. Let it be.
This is a story of the life of a man who chose to be a warrior and became a warrior with all the honor and tension, loyalty and disappointment that soldiering implies. But he is now living a long and elegant life. We tell his life as best we can, acknowledging there are some things that we will approach no further. What we will do is recognize and honor the life record of an intuitive soldier who has anticipated in word and acted out for nearly three quarters of a century, in deeds of loyalty, love and service, the processes that the United States Army looks at today in defining its 21st century mission.
When we remove ourselves from the individual warrior and his daily task, when we back off to look at the Battalions, Divisions, Corps, Armies, Nations and the global vitalities and visions that lead to these world-encompassing conflicts, we may see that the personal warfare in life and death that surrounded Jimmie Leach is a trifling concern on the world's stage. What then are we to make of Jimmie Leach's service, if on the planet, taken as we see it on Google Earth, as a blue orb with oceans and landscapes, Jimmie's service is invisible.
This is the valuable gift of Jimmie's life. The liberation of these French and Lux and Belgian citizens from the Germans. And as usual he recognizes that value through decades of consistent behavior. He returns again and again to Europe, to France, to Lorraine, to towns like Luneville and Arracourt and Bigonville and to Singling and to Bastogne in Belgium and he celebrates with their citizens; he celebrates liberation; they honor him for his great gift of freedom, unselfishly given and individually accepted.
As I write this Preface, Jimmie Leach is 87 years old and he and his wife Marion are in France and Luxembourg and Belgium to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the towns near Lorraine. He spoke at Chancenay. He spoke at Luneville. He made remarks at Valhey. He said a few words at Arracourt. He offered remarks at Bezange la Petit. He visited old friends at Singling and at Bigonville. He visited the military museum at Diekirch in Luxembourg where is displayed a faded newspaper that states simply, "Luxembourg is Free, The Americans are Here."
And I am traveling with them. This is Jimmie Leach's gift to me.
Publication Granted by The Leach Family and Matthew Hermes PhD.